Throughout the 1960s and into the 1970s, Joan Payson‘s tenure as New York Mets owner nearly entirely overlapped with the tenure of another Legendary Lady in Mets history, beloved organist Jane Jarvis. Jarvis worked for the Mets from 1964 through 1979, adding her sprinkle of personality into Mets home games with her trademark jazz riffs and clever song choices.
Like Payson, Jarvis led a multifaceted life. She may be best-known in the baseball community for her work as the Mets’ stadium organist, but she also had a prolific career pre- and post-Shea Stadium as an accomplished jazz pianist.
Born Luella Jane Nossette on Halloween in 1915, the woman who would grow up to be Jane Jarvis (she hated her first name) began plucking away at the black-and-white keys as a small child. In the fashion of many other famous pianists throughout musical history, from Mozart all the way to Elton John, she was a prodigy at a young age.
“It’s a little vain to refer to yourself that way, but I must say that I was very unusual,” noted Jarvis in a 1995 interview at Hamilton College. “I had the good fortune to be born to incredible parents. They were scholars, and neither of them were musicians. My father was an attorney and my mother was a schoolteacher that could teach everything but music. But they recognized that a three-year-old child who could go to the piano and copy anything they heard, in a very fundamental way, [was unusual]. I’d come home and imitate the snatches of phrases I’d heard that imprinted on me.”
Her official musical career began when her parents enrolled her in classical piano study at Vincennes University in her home state of Indiana when she was only five years old. Her love of jazz started around the same time, listening to her uncle’s record collection, and her professional career began a few years later, when she performed on a radio show that featured child entertainers when she was just eleven years old.
“As soon as I was able to understand, they took me to our hometown university that was in Vincennes,” added Jarvis. “The head of the piano department accepted me as a student. I was somewhere between five and seven. She was an exceptional teacher. My parents recognized that if I were given the opportunity, that I could fulfill their dreams for me. I just had a grand start and was educated early, very early.”
Jarvis’s musical studies carried her through a very difficult period of her life. Her parents both died in a car accident when she was 14, leaving music as the main constant connecting her childhood with her later years. She remained dedicated to her music in the wake of this tragedy, going on to several more music programs, including one at the Chicago Conservatory of Music. She wanted to be a concert pianist, and played with symphony orchestras in Indianapolis and Milwaukee.
While in Chicago, Jarvis became friendly with many famous jazz musicians of the day, including Mary Lou Williams and Andy Kirk. As a teenager, she performed with Karl Malden and Red Skelton. She later went on to host her own show, Jivin’ With Jarvis1https://sabr.org/bioproj/person/jane-jarvis/#_edn71, at WTMJ in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.
“There were women bands at that time, but that kind of life didn’t appeal to me,” noted Jarvis. “Besides, I wanted to be in a man’s band, because it was more powerful at that point, and women’s bands did not get the recognition. They were a novelty, and I didn’t like that. So it was easier for me to go the radio, and then television route. Then I used my ability to play jazz to earn money other than that.”
After years playing piano in concert halls, cocktail lounges, and radio stations, it was time for a new adventure. In 1954, she replaced Clarence Bosch as the Milwaukee Braves’ new organist. Bosch had replaced an organist who had become too fanatical, playing “Three Blind Mice” whenever he thought the umpire had made the wrong call. Jarvis played at County Stadium in Milwaukee for nearly ten years, becoming well-known for personalizing her song choices to the player at-bat or the specific in-game action. Whenever Hank Aaron hit a home run, for example, she played a rousing rendition of a song called “Dance With Me, Henry.”
“I had never been to a baseball game [before interviewing with the Braves]. I couldn’t even get a passing grade in gym. My eyes cross if you throw a ball at me! So I think I was the most unlikely person on earth to be a sports organist,” remarked Jarvis in 1995.
“I’ll never forget that interview. They explained baseball to me, ‘now men get up with the bat, and they throw the ball, three strikes and you’re out, don’t play unless the club is leaving the field’. . . after they became certain that I wouldn’t wreck the National League, they let me begin to play [during the game].”
The one rule she had been given, she told the New York Times, was to “never interfere with the game. Never never never.”
But despite knowing nothing about the game when she started, she quickly became a fan and used her musical prodigy to amp up the atmosphere at the ballpark for the fans down below. According to columnist Donald H. Dooley, during a rain delay in 1957, a groundskeeper got stuck under the tarp, and Jarvis played “Where, Oh Where Has My Little Dog Gone?” to amuse the crowd. She got her first taste of championship baseball when the Braves won the World Series later that year, and the pennant again the following season.
In 1963, Jarvis decided to take her talents elsewhere and headed for the Big Apple, where she quickly found herself a new ballpark opportunity with a freshly-minted National League team.
“[With the Mets] what had happened was, I received a phone call from John McHale, who was at that point president of the Milwaukee Braves,” recalled Jarvis. “He wanted to know if I’d like to move to Atlanta, because the club was [moving]. . . I decided that as long as I was going to make the move [to New York] it was going to be a complete one. And where else but New York for jazz? So I went to the new club owners of the New York Mets, and they hired me because I’d had experience!”
Jarvis was the cheerful musical sound of Shea Stadium for a decade and a half. She got to know the members of the 1969 World Series champion team, as well as the pennant-winning 1973 Mets. Her personalized song choices and delightful jazzy interludes accompanied the likes of Tom “Terrific” Seaver, Tug McGraw, and second baseman Felix Millan, for whom she’d play “Felix the Cat,” through the 1960s and ’70s.
She was there through several triumphant seasons, accompanying the Mets as they reached the pinnacle of achievement in the baseball world for the first time and nearly for a second. Her music provided light on July 13, 1977, when she continued playing the organ through a city-wide blackout that shrouded the city in darkness for twenty-five hours and stranded thousands of fans at Shea Stadium in the dark. Her rendition of “Meet the Mets” became a fan-favorite version of the Mets’ famous theme song, as well as her own composition, “Let’s Go Mets.” As several generations of Mets players came and went, Jarvis was perhaps the one constant at Shea Stadium for all of those years.
During her time as the Mets’ organist, Jarvis dabbled in several other entertainment avenues. Besides becoming a fixture in the New York jazz scene, she made an appearance on the popular game show To Tell The Truth in 1966 as one of the three “imposters.”
She also worked another job at Muzak Corporation, producing and arranging music until 1978. She started there as a clerk in 1963; by the time she left that the company, she was the senior vice president in charge of programming and recording. She left the Mets the following year.
”I enjoyed producing records for Muzak,” she told The New York Times in 1984. ”But they had a change of policy that didn’t fit in with my standards. That was why I left in 1978. I thought I’d keep the Mets job for the income, while I started building a career as a jazz pianist. But then I realized that nobody would take me seriously in jazz if I stayed with the Mets. So I left in July 1979. They had no substitute for me, and they never got one. They’ve been using records ever since.”
Jarvis’s commitment to honing her craft demonstrates that though she is remembered fondly as a ballpark organist, her real calling was in the world of jazz. She effortlessly translated her jazz expertise into the ballpark environment, and the Flushing faithful loved her for it. But her heart throughout her life was with jazz music as a profession. Her obituary in the New York Times notes that after retiring from Muzak and the Mets, she spent the 1980s as “a fixture at the West Village nightclub and restaurant Zinno,” and “recorded her first album as a leader in 1985, the year she turned 70.” She was the only woman in Statesmen of Jazz, an ensemble of musicians over 65 years old.
”Most people at the Mets games didn’t know I was playing jazz on the organ at Shea Stadium,” added Jarvis in that same Times interview. ”But Lionel Hampton and Clark Terry and Zoot Sims could hear what I was doing. Truth is, that’s almost all I ever played there. And when I got to produce records at Muzak I used Hamp and Clark and Richie Kamuca and others.”
The Mets have done away with in-house organists since Jarvis left, opting for canned stadium music to pump up the home crowds. But Mets fans of a certain era fondly remember Jarvis, likening her to a touchstone of days gone by.
Longtime Mets broadcaster Howie Rose has referred to her as Shea’s “Queen of Melody.”
“She had a different lilt to everything she played, including the Star-Spangled Banner,” added Rose in Jarvis’s Newsday obituary. “There were certain things unique to that ballpark, and she was one of them.”
Jarvis’s lifelong song ended in 2010, when she passed away on January 25 at age 94.
Throughout her life, Jarvis was a strong proponent of introducing kids to jazz music at a young age.
“Most of the degrees that are given now in jazz, I think I’m speaking with some knowledge of it, are people getting a degree in an instrument or in arranging, in order to make a livelihood,” said Jarvis in 1995. “But what we have been ignoring is the audience. Who is going to be the audience? And it seemed to me, and it has to them, the jazz music education folks, that if it could be introduced at a very young age. . . just by exposure. It doesn’t have to be a rigid attempt, but that is what they’re hopeful for.”
In addition to Jarvis, there have been several other women who made their mark as ballpark organists. Nancy Faust played organ for the Chicago White Sox for 41 years, cementing herself as a legendary fixture at Comiskey Park. Lori Moreland replaced Faust in 2011, and has developed her own devoted following among fans of South Side. For over twenty years, Sue Nelson has provided the ballpark accompaniment for the Minnesota Twins.
And years before all of them, Gladys Goodding was a true pioneer for the Brooklyn Dodgers. At Ebbets Field, she played the first organ ever permanently installed in a major league baseball stadium, making the keys sing in Brooklyn from 1942 through 1957.
But for the Mets, Jarvis will always be the sole “Queen of Melody.”
Photo: New York Mets